“My twenties were one big walkabout,” begins the second essay in Delia Ephron’s memoir, Sister Mother Husband Dog, etc.
The author, screenwriter and playwright comes to Austin this month as a speaker at the Texas Conference for Women, marking her first visit since filming the 1996 John Travolta film Michael, which she co-wrote and produced with older sister Nora. It may have been 17 years since she last set foot on local soil, but she’s still got plenty of sound advice for creative souls looking to find their own footing in the heart of the Lone Star state.
The author, screenwriter and playwright comes to Austin this month as a speaker at the Texas Conference for Women
Having written or co-written plays and films like How to Eat Like a Child, You’ve Got Mail and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, not to mention publishing eight books, co-producing Sleepless in Seattle and writing for The New York Times and Vogue, among other titles, her list of published works is exhaustive.
Sister Mother Husband Dog, etc, written in the months following Nora’s death, features a collection of 15 essays traversing topics as diverse as mourning the loss of a sibling, growing up as the child of two highly successful and secretly alcoholic parents, navigating the shark-infested waters of the ever-competitive movie-making machine, and jaunting (figuratively, anyway) through a laundry list of Manhattan’s finest bakeries for the express purpose of pointing out each one’s best offering.
A ladylike sort of whimsy flows throughout the work, but underneath it lies the watermark of a keen-eyed craftsman. This memoir wasn’t dashed off in haste. Each word is chosen with great care – so much so that we’re offered no fewer than six alternate openings to the bravely intimate piece, “Why I Can’t Write about My Mother.”
A ladylike sort of whimsy flows throughout the work, but underneath it lies the watermark of a keen-eyed craftsman.
“These are, I should point out, the things that children of alcoholics are sensitive to,” she writes in that essay. “Minutiae. Subtle details. Meanings that might sail over another child’s head. I was always decoding. I was hyperalert. Being hyperalert is a lasting thing. Being a watcher. Noticing emotional shifts, infinitesimally small tremors that flit over another person’s face, the jab in a seemingly innocuous word…” It’s Ephron’s empathy that shines through her work – empathy that’s equally capable of winning the hearts of those who breeze through it and breaking the ones of those who recognize the effort behind it.
We couldn’t help but track her down and ask a few questions about pursuing the creative life, earning success in the film and literary industries, and remembering her last trip to Austin. Here are her responses.
CITYGRAM: Delia, we love highlighting makers, creatives and generally passionate people who dedicate themselves to a craft of some sort, and we often find that the folks we feature serve as points of inspiration for our readers.
In your memoir, you make it clear that you were brought up to be a writer — that your parents were actually rather insistent about it. Was there a particular moment, though, where you felt that it wasn’t just a life you were groomed for, but rather, that it was truly your calling?
Delia Ephron: Yes. After I began my life of a writer, which I put off until my thirties, I wrote 500 words about children and food. I called it “How to Eat Like a Child.” It was very funny and I looked at it and I suddenly knew, Oh, this is who I am. I discovered my voice as a writer and as a person.
In this book that is being published now, Sister Mother Husband Dog, etc, a memoir in essays, I revisit the time when I was just getting started, and how difficult it was. One particular romantic comedy that I saw when I was ten almost derailed me. This book told me a lot about what I think and how it all happened — but then every book I write is a personal journey.
“the truth is you can waste your twenties and still have a professional life… Don’t feel bad if you don’t figure out what you want to do right away.”
CITYGRAM: As a veteran in the realms of both filmmaking and publishing, what advice would you give to anyone starting out as a writer in either industry? Or, more specifically, if you could reach back in time and give your 20-something self a bit of professional guidance, what would you say to her?
Delia: Don’t marry a man just because he asks you. Not that getting that obvious advice would have stopped me. I was determined to avoid writing in my twenties. Scared. And I think the truth is you can waste your twenties and still have a professional life. So my advice: Don’t feel bad if you don’t figure out what you want to do right away. Eventually you will figure it out. Be driven. Never take no for an answer. Believe in your work.
CITYGRAM:We’re curious: what books are on your nightstand (or, probably more accurately, in your carry-on bag) at the moment? Who are your favorite authors out there today, and who have been your influences from the start?
Delia: E.B. White. I love The Trumpet of the Swan. I always aspire to whimsy, even when I’m writing something painful. On my nightstand are American Mirror (the biography of Norman Rockwell) by Deborah Solomon, French Lessons by Ellen Sussaman, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.
CITYGRAM:You spent some time in Austin when you were filming Michael, and you’ll be back soon, speaking at the Texas Conference for Women. Have you visited since? Any anecdotes?
Delia: I haven’t been to Austin since Michael, and my main memories are of the barbecue. Nora and I used to take barbecue back to NYC and smell up the entire plane.
Sister Mother Husband Dog, etc., published by the Penguin Group, is on bookstands now.
Texas Conference for Women
Nov 19th, 7:30AM – 5:00PM
Austin Convention Center
500 E Cesar Chavez St
Austin, TX 78701
This article originally published in The Wander Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine.
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